Also known as “fear and loathing in the arena”, “certain death on four legs”, “how I ended up in hospital”, and “why am I even doing this bloody sport”.
What is spooking?
“Spooking” is the name for horses’ sudden, often dramatic attempts, to teleport. Since horses are essentially designed to be lunchboxes on legs, a brave horse tends to also be a dead horse. They rely on very sharp hearing, a wide scale of vision, sensitive sense of smell, and very quick bursts of speed to get themselves out of dangerous situations. A spook is the precursor to a bolt, which is full flight mode. Not all spooks turn into bolts. An extremely nervy horse won’t spook before bolting. This is great fun for all involved.
What does a spook look like?
Your life flashing before your eyes, usually. To the outside viewer, a spook can vary depending on the horse’s athleticism and temperament. However, there are some key similarities.
Ears will suddenly flick in the direction of what is concerning the horse. This is the first warning. If the horse is travelling with their ears forward, then the rider may notice them prick up a little more intently. Otherwise, the ears will “lock on” to an object/situation. The head will tilt in the direction of the frightening item, and will telescope so that the eyes can get a better look – the head may rise or the neck may arch to do this. The legs will lose speed and the horse may slam on the brakes entirely. The shoulders will then lighten, lowering the centre of gravity and preparing to swivel the hindquarters in a safer direction for a quick getaway. The horse may duck a shoulder and sprint off in the other direction. Alternatively, if blocked by a rider, handler, or other obstacle, the horse will leap sideways, keeping parallel to the frightening item but putting substantial distance between them. The rider will feel a sudden elevation in the horse’s heart rate. The horse may also empty their lungs in a dramatic snort.
What do you do when the horse is spooking?
Repent and pray. Hang on for dear life. Keep yourself safe in whatever way seems possible at the time.
Beyond that, it is important to understand several things:
1. The horse is not spooking to spite you.
2. Getting angry at the horse will only convince them that the item in question is terrifying or unpleasant, because you are now also being terrifying or unpleasant.
3. Horses are not clever. That’s your job.
When riding a spooky horse, or unfamiliar horse that may be spooky, this is what I do:
1. Identify potential sites of spooks before riding. Avoid these initially. There’s no point in starting with an argument.
2. Establish the brakes, accelerator, turning, and yielding (ability to move the back or front end sideways, and to move them independently from the rest of the body). Remind the horse that you have control of all of these faculties. If any of these are not working, do not progress in the ride until they are fixed. Get off if you need to and fix them on the ground.
3. Start exercises on a small circle, and slowly increase its size as well as your speeds. This builds up a comfort zone that the horse knows is safe and familiar. By circling, the horse’s shifts in flexion also alert me to areas that are catching his attention. Slowly increase your “territory” to enclose all of the arena.
If the horse does spook, do not shout at him. Do what you can to stay on board and bring him back under control, but try to hold the following things in mind:
1. Breathe out and relax your body as much as possible. Do not be a source of tension and do not feed the horse’s fear. They are herd animals that rely in the reactions of other herd members to dictate their behaviour. Be a source of complete zen (as much as is physically possible).
2. Speak calmly and kindly. Do not get angry. Do not convince the horse that they made the right call.
3. Do not saw on the horse’s mouth. Take up an even, normal contact and lower your hands and widen their position on the horse’s neck.
4. Sink your weight deep into the saddle and wrap your legs around the horse’s barrel. All of your body must think slow thoughts, while also regaining control of direction.
5. Do not let the horse look away from the frightening item. Keep them looking at it and keep them moving forward, make a small circle that skirts as close to the offending item as possible while changing direction. This is not “letting the horse win”. That’s not how horses think. They’re not that bright. You need to restart the brain and get it out of the “fear” sequence.
6. Return to an established safety zone in the arena, and re-establish the brakes, accelerator, and yielding. Give the horse another job to do and get their mind off the frightening situation. Their short term memory should be restarted with positive work and praise for getting it right.
7. Now, confront the frightening situation slowly. Increase the circle size until you are getting closer, but this time ask the horse to do something tricky as you approach: flex to the inside, ask for some shoulder-in or quarters-in, etc. Remind them that they’re still on the clock. Speak calmly and firmly. Keep constant contact and insist on a steady rhythm.
8. Rinse and repeat as often as is necessary.
The method outlined above is what I do, and it’s not necessarily what everyone else out there will advise or promote. My reasoning for why I do it this way is quite simple:
1. I prefer to build confidence, rather than fear, in the horse.
2. I am morally and logically opposed to shouting at a horse, kicking and sawing at them when they are frightened by something.
3. This method ensures that the horse is still getting a decent work-out for their brain and body, even when they’re not 100% on the job.
4. I have sat a lot of spooks, and been chucked off as a result plenty of times, and know my limits when it comes to hanging on and re-establishing control of a horse. If the horse is very green or very experienced, I will shift my approach accordingly. No one likes to have a horse fall over under them, after all. (Once is enough)
Spooking happens at every level. Even the most impeccably trained dressage horses can and do spook. Here’s a video of Juan Manuael Munoz Diaz at the World Equestrian Games, riding a fantastic test and then sitting a great spook at the end when Fuego de Cardenas got a fright from all the cheering.